Our first reaction to the photograph immediately to the right was purely visual—the scene was so splendidly busy. Telegraph wires, trolleys, carriages, and purposeful pedestrians, the impressive fountain—all bespoke an American Main Street facing the twentieth century in peak condition. Then we found a label identifying the street as Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama, and the imperatives of history amplified the simple pleasures of the eye.
Viewed from the vantage of Court Square in the foreground, the broad avenue points like an arrow to the gleaming Greek Revival State Capitol, whose oldest portion dates from 1851. During the few months that Montgomery served as capital of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis was sworn into office here. Yet, only one block down on the right is the small steeple of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where, in 1955, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would direct a boycott of the local buses with results that were anything but local. And on March 25, 1965, King and thousands of allies ended their march from Selma on Dexter Avenue, heading for the Capitol.
On a nearby street the Confederacy’s first cabinet issued the order to fire on Fort Sumter. And the cable communicating that order was tapped out from the Winter Building, occupied by the I. Levystein Department Store by 1906 and still standing at the extreme right.
By the 1950s streetcar tracks and overhead wires had vanished, and some building facades showed signs of change. But the real change came later (opposite page), as it did to most cities, with the slow abandonment of downtown. And although an ambitious restoration plan is now under way, at 2:00 P.M. on a recent weekday an eerie stillness seems to have settled on Dexter Avenue.